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The Bulletin
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The Big Picture, a regular Bulletin feature both on-line and off, is an in-depth look at selected new titles and trends. See the archive for selections from previous months.

This Land Was Made for You and Me: The Life & Songs of Woody Guthrie by Elizabeth Partridge
Viking, 2002 218p illus. with photographs
ISBN 0-670-03535-1 $21.99 Gr. 7 up

Woody Guthrie wandered tirelessly through America and lent his voice and music to the causes of the downtrodden people he met, but he was no angel. In celebrating his legacy, many biographers have chosen to take an adulatory path and ignore Guthrie’s darker side. Not so with this volume, which presents an unflinchingly accurate portrait of a rambling and unpredictable man whose amazingly prolific output and true genius for creating memorable songs earned him a place in American music history, despite his tendency to crash on friend’s couches until the welcome had long soured.

Partridge’s succinct and quick-shifting prose captures the disjointed rhythms of the events in Guthrie’s complex life, from his childhood in the depths of the Dust Bowl and the Depression under the dubious protection of a mother who was slowly succumbing to Huntington’s disease, to his several failed marriages, which were not helped by his lifelong propensity to disappear for lengthy intervals with no warning. A creative energy propelled him through life, leaving those around him amazed and often baffled by his wandering attention. The author crafts her descriptions to reflect the rapidity and wildness of Guthrie’s talent: “He brimmed with brilliant schemes and wild ideas. He drew constantly, put out a newsletter about what he and his friends were doing, and always had stacks of library books around. At any moment he would start talking about his latest interest. Whenever he had a little money he’d buy a notepad and jot down words to a song.”

In addition to a panoply of archival photographs, which add realism to this engrossing story of a life, the book includes carefully selected quotes from songs, acquaintances, and documents to punctuate the story with authenticating detail without detracting from the momentum of the narrative. Comments from friends, particularly Guthrie’s close friend Pete Seeger, offer interesting insights into the positive and negative effects of Guthrie’s restless energy on those around him. After watching Guthrie wander off from his young wife and three children, leaving them no means of support, Seeger asked, “Is that the price of genius? . . . Is it worth paying?” Seeger saw both sides of Guthrie, though, and marveled at his prolific output: “Lord, Lord, he turned out song after song!”

Partridge also sheds light on the vagaries of popularity, showing how close Guthrie came to falling into obscurity, not once but many times throughout his life. His brief commercial successes always crumbled, as did most of his relationships with fellow artists (and all of his romantic relationships). In addition, Guthrie’s behavior grew more outrageous as he grew older; he and his friends blamed his consumption of alcohol, until doctors diagnosed him, at age forty-two, with Huntington’s disease, the same degenerative neurological disorder that had sent his own mother to an asylum. Then, in a final twist in a life full of winding roads, while Guthrie was deteriorating dramatically in a hospital room, folk music became the genre of a generation, and Guthrie became known as one of the enduring creators of modern folk music. Long after he had ceased to be able to communicate or move a muscle voluntarily, his son Arlo Guthrie and old friend Pete Seeger would bring their guitars to the hospital to sing duets: “Woody could no longer applaud, but his eyes shone with tears.”

This accurate and honest portrait of Woody Guthrie does not soften his edges, but it shows in engrossing details the constant, unstoppable tide of creation that carried him through life, and it offers a sense of the passion that drove this brilliant songwriter to become one of the most important musicians in the history of our nation. To round out the volume, there are general source notes and endnotes, a bibliography, and an index.

Kate McDowell, Reviewer

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Cover art: jacket art by Lane Smith; photograph of Woody Guthrie by Al Aumuller, courtesy of the Library of Congress. Used by permission of Viking Children’s Books.

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This page was last updated on July 1, 2002.